Afghan President Calls 'Conditional' Cease-Fire As Taliban Seizes Northern District On Independence Day

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has called a "conditional" cease-fire with the Taliban to mark the Eid al-Adha holiday, just hours after insurgents said they had seized a district center in the northern province of Faryab.

The cease-fire will commence on August 20 and run for three months, Ghani said during an Afghan Independence Day ceremony on August 19.

The United States said it welcomed the move, which is conditioned upon Taliban participation.

"We announce a cease-fire that would take effect from tomorrow, the day of Arafa, until the day of the birth of the prophet [November 19], provided that the Taliban reciprocate," Ghani said.

He did not say whether Taliban authorities had agreed to the cease-fire, the Kabul government and the Taliban had declared a three-day cease-fire in June coinciding with the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the last cease-fire revealed the "deep desire" of the Afghan people to end the conflict, "and we hope another cease-fire will move the country closer to sustainable security."

The United States and our international partners support this initiative by the Afghan people and the Afghan government, and we call on the Taliban to participate. It is our hope, and that of the international community, that the Afghan people may celebrate Eid al-Adha this year in peace, free from fear," the statement added.

"The United States supports President Ghani's offer for comprehensive negotiations on a mutually agreed agenda. ‎We remain ready to support, facilitate, and participate in direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. There are no obstacles to talks. It is time for peace."

The announcement comes days after Taliban militants captured a military base in the same region.

Provincial Governor Naqibullah Fayeq said on August 19 that the Balcharagh district fell into the hands of Taliban fighters late on the previous day following several days of heavy clashes because the Afghan soldiers did not receive reinforcements.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Differing Accounts

Two provincial council members said government forces had surrendered but gave differing accounts of how it happened.

Police officers, soldiers, and local government staff surrendered after spending months surrounded by the Taliban and receiving no help from government forces located in Faryab Province’s capital, Maymana, according to council member Abdul Ahad Elbek.

Another member of the council, Aaq Mohammad Noori, said that 60 police officers surrendered after mediation by tribal elders following the retreat of an army battalion.

The development comes as Afghanistan is marking on August 19 the 99th anniversary of its independence.

President Ashraf Ghani and other top officials attended a wreath laying ceremony inside the Defense Ministry compound in Kabul.

Earlier this month, Taliban fighters overran an Afghan National Army base elsewhere in Faryab Province.

The Defense Ministry said the Taliban gained control of the operations base in the Ghormach district late on August 13 following a gunbattle in which 17 soldiers were killed and 19 others were wounded.

Some reports said dozens of Afghan soldiers were also captured by the Taliban.

Taliban Calls For Direct Talks With U.S.

The Western-backed government in Kabul has been struggling to fend off the Taliban and other militant groups since the withdrawal of most NATO troops in 2014.

In a statement on August 18, Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada repeated his call for direct talks with the United States to end what he said was the foreign "occupation" of Afghanistan.

Akhundzada said the militant group wanted "sincere, transparent, and result-oriented negotiations" with Washington, adding that any peace settlement negotiated between the two sides must "preserve our Islamic goals, sovereignty of our homeland, and ensure an end to the war."

Akhundzada, believed to be living in hiding in neighboring Pakistan, had previously said the militants would not negotiate with the Afghan government, which he labelled a “puppet.”

With reporting by dpa and Khaama Press